Thanks to this comment by Dipali, I got myself a copy of Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s exploration of marriage. It was right up my sleeve because I have often pondered the whys and wherefores of marriage and also because I like Gilbert’s style (I know many hated Eat Pray Love but I find she asks many of the same questions I do).

So I’m going to do a series of posts to summarise what I learnt from the book. To start with:

What’s the point of marriage?

Well, there’s no simple answer to this question. Gilbert presents the purpose of marriage and its form as changing as society transitions from being clan-based to individualistic.

This might be useful for people in India to remember. It seems to me that much of the discussion about marriage in India centres around this transition we seem to find ourselves in – from a clan-based society that saw the couple as only a unit in a system towards a more individualistic society that sees the couple as a unit in themselves.

There is no value-judgment on either. But the way society seems to develop, this seems to be like an inevitable transition. Those that cling to the old clan-based model might do well to remember that they are resisting a change that is bound to happen.

However, marriage is definitely impacted by the kind of society it is situated in. Thus, Gilbert notes of the women she met in a Hmong village in Vietnam:

Neither the grandmother nor any other woman in that room was placing her marriage at the center of her emotional biography in any way that was remotely familiar to me.

By contrast:

In the modern industrialized Western world, where I come from, the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality. Your spouse becomes the most gleaming possible mirror through which your emotional individualism is reflected back to the world. There is no choice more intensely personal, after all, than whom you choose to marry…

Regardless of the merits or demerits of either form, the march towards individualism seems inexorable:

It would be farcical and insulting, besides, to adopt their [the Hmong] worldview. In fact, the inexorable march of industrial progress suggests that the Hmong will be more likely to start adopting my worldview in the years to come.

…Like most human beings, once I’ve been shown the options, I will always opt for more choices for my life…It’s almost as if I’m an entirely new strain of woman (homo limitlessness, you might call us).

As a woman who married a man of her choice, had a child only when I chose to and who eschews many of the so-called female duties, I sometimes feel like this new strain of woman in India. I see this yawning gap between the two kinds of societies popping up in most discussions about marriage and women in the home in India. The older generation does not understand what the younger generation want out of marriage because the worldview has changed altogether. We will no longer be happy with merely fulfilling a role, what we want to do is fulfill ourselves.

But whether the purpose of marriage is to keep the clan stable, to manage assets, to rear children or simply to facilitate love, Gilbert finds that it’s largely about control. It’s about society trying to manage a relationship that tends to get messy because children and property are generally involved.

As she says, society is most likely, almost inevitably, going to move towards individualism and the consequence of this is that people are going to want to choose their own marriage partner and they will base this choice on a feeling – love – which by its nature is fragile and unstable. And so we can expect marriages that are premised on something as fragile as love to be fragile too. And that where there is fragility, there will be break-ups:

the transformation of marriage from a business deal to a badge of emotional affection has weakened the institution considerably – because marriages based on love are, as it turns out, just as fragile as love itself.

…Maybe divorce is the tax we collectively pay as a culture for daring to believe in love – or at least for daring to link love to such a vital social contract as matrimony.

This is not something society can prevent, it can only manage it.

Marriage from the outset seems to be a way of society managing an unstable relationship so as to preempt breakup, which is messy and costly to society. Thus, marriage by definition carries with it the assumption of breakup. If there was no possibility of breakup, well, there might be no marriage – what is essentially a contract to fence people into a commitment and make it harder for them to wriggle out of it. Thus, maybe divorces do not happen because of marriages based on love but that marriage – whether based on love or anything else – itself happens because of the possibility of divorce/splitting up built into any relationship:

Maybe it is not love and marriage that go together like a horse and carriage after all. Maybe it is love and divorce that go together.

Also, an inherent part of the transition of marriage, is its transformation as the status of women in society and the choices open to them improve. This is natural, and moreover, only fair.

More on that next.